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The Big Answer


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What We Know About Childcare

a book by Alison Clarke-Stewart and Virginia D. Allhusen

(our site's book review)

Experts do not themselves agree on the effects of childcare. “Some believe that long hours away from the mother in the earliest years pose an unacceptable risk to children's healthy development. Others point to the potential benefits of high-quality childcare and maternal employment not only for children but for mothers and families as well,” state the authors.

In one study, working mothers were found to spend about a third less time with their infants than their nonworking counterparts spend. But this differential had no apparent effects on the quality of observed interaction between mom and child. It also didn’t affect the quality of the parent-child attachment relationship. In another study, the kids of mothers who worked said they received greater amounts of verbal and physical affection from their moms than did the kids of stay-at-home moms. Yet another study got the same result: The moms of toddlers who were enrolled in fulltime childcare had more social interactions with their toddlers during nonworking hours than the stay-at-home moms did with their toddlers.

Moms of toddlers who were enrolled in fulltime childcare had more social interactions with their toddlers during nonworking hours than the stay-at-home moms did with their toddlers
Moms of toddlers who were enrolled in fulltime childcare had more social interactions with their toddlers during nonworking hours than the stay-at-home moms did with their toddlers

The authors found also that unhappy moms don’t do as good of a job of caregiving as happy moms.

Because childcare homes with informal arrangements are so widely used, estimates are that as much as 90 percent of family childcare homes used in the United States are unregulated.

The demographics show that compared to past realities, today kids live in smaller families with fewer siblings or grandparents to help with childcare, and even when grandparents live nearby, they have their own lives and jobs and often are unavailable. Most parents, if they have a choice, prefer childcare in their own home, by a nonrelative adult babysitter such as a nanny. However, this is a relatively rare type of childcare because it is a huge expense, used mostly by well-to-do parents. Relatives usually don’t charge to do childcare, so relative care is fairly common. Childcare costs 20% of poor families’ income and an average of 7% of the income of families above the poverty line.

The authors tell us that “What parents care most about is their child's experience in the care arrangement—the warmth of the caregiver, the variety of daily activities, and opportunities for learning.”

From the 1970s to the 1990s good/excellent quality care went from 26% to 13% in centers
From the 1970s to the 1990s good/excellent quality care went from 26% to 13% in centers

The trends in childcare quality are not encouraging: From the 1970s to the 1990s good/excellent quality care went from 38% to 12% in childcare homes and 26% to 13% in centers.

A number of research studies have shown that kids in childcare centers do better intellectually than kids who remain at home. Kids in childcare have been observed to be more self-confident, outgoing, assertive, verbally expressive, and self-sufficient. They're also less distressed, timid, and fearful in new situations and with strangers. When faced with frustration, they are more likely than kids without childcare experience to entertain and soothe themselves and not to depend on their moms for assistance. Also, childcare, in and of itself, does not harm the infant's attachment to the mother.

When activities were required or directed by the teacher in childcare centers, children thought of these activities as work. These same activities, like art and computer using, when chosen by the child, were thought of as fun. Choice is a critical component of enjoyment, and the core context in which autonomy develops. Research shows that for best results, a combination of structured and unstructured (self-chosen) activities is best. Fewer children per caregiver gets better results than more, so centers attempt to keep the child-adult ratios low. (Montessori: A Modern Approach describes an autonomy-promoting school methodology where children's choices drive the action, so they think of learning as fun, not work.)

Praise is a common tactic used by childcare center workers, but it can be overdone or done wrong
Praise is a common tactic used by childcare center workers, but it can be overdone or done wrong

Praise is a common tactic used by childcare center workers to manage kids and manipulate their behavior. (Dreikurs favors encouragement over praise, as praise is too easy to confuse with a reward, and rewards tend to induce kids to be dependent and other-directed. ) Criticism is an ineffective behavior molding tool and it tends to prevent intellectual development at the centers that rely on it

This book utilizes—among other things—results from a 1991-2009 study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Early Child Care Research Network (NICHD) suggest that the quality of 61 percent of settings for young children would be rated as either poor (8 percent) or fair (53 percent), with care for infants and toddlers getting the lowest ratings. Such findings provide sufficient cause for concern about the level of care available in the United States, especially for infants and toddlers. (Funding for the study ended in 2009, but the use and analysis of the data is ongoing.)

The chief finding to emerge from the NICHD study is that the family environment—including family income, mother-child interaction and mother's symptoms of depression—is far more strongly linked to a child's development than is child care. Also that the amount of time children spend in nonmaternal care outside the home doesn't appear to be related to child development, in contrast to findings from earlier studies. In addition:

Father care remained stable over time, with about 13 percent of children cared for by fathers
Father care remained stable over time, with about 13 percent of children cared for by fathers

The jury may still be out on what to make of this study that can be translated into policy, educational, childcare, teacher, and parental actions, but the fact that it was proven that family environment is far more strongly linked to a child's development than is child care once again underlines the need for MC movement actions, since most modern (2014) family environments are often or usually weak with respect to nurturing.